How American Are American Orchestras?

The Women’s Philharmonic is a unique institution by very nature. As the only professional orchestra in the nation dedicated to the promotion of women composers, conductors and performers, it clearly has a commitment to the present. And its commissioning legacy bears this out. The orchestra has commissioned 35 works since its first concert in 1981, the preponderance of which are by American composers. Highlights from the past decade include Katherine Hoover’s Two Sketches, Tina Davidson’s They Come Dancing, Victoria Bond’s Urban Bird, Hilary Tann’s From Afar, Cindy Cox’s Cathedral Spires (1993), and five works by Chen Yi: Antiphony (1994), A Set of Chinese Folk Songs (1994/96), Symphony No. 2 (1993), Tang Poems (1995), and Chinese Myths Cantata (1996) which resulted in a recording for New Albion. “The Women’s Philharmonic commissions works from today’s leading women composers, provides career support to women composers and conductors, reconstructs historical masterworks by women, and promotes these works to orchestras across the country and around the world,” states the orchestra’s press materials. The orchestra is without peer in supporting women composers. But, casting gender considerations aside, it also has accomplished a great deal in the support of all composers, especially American ones. The Philharmonic has won 14 ASCAP awards for programming contemporary music, including one this year. And in 1993, it won the ASCAP John S. Edwards Award, for strongest commitment to new American music. The ensemble received all of these accolades in only 17 seasons and working with a budget of under $1.3 million.

In addition to the commissioning accomplishments, the Philharmonic and its current conductor and music director, Apo Hsu (pronounced Shoe), has several impressive programs. Its “Music in the Making” program is a new-music reading session that provides “emerging composers an opportunity to hone their craft by hearing their orchestral work performed by a professional ensemble,” according to the orchestra. “The sessions are digitally recorded by a professional engineer, and each composer receives a cassette copy of her reading.”

Another program of note is “Composing a Career,” a career development symposium for women composers. The orchestra, based in San Francisco, plans to present this symposium and its new-music reading session on the East Coast for the first time this season.

But the grandest plan of all for the Women’s Philharmonic is its Fanfares project. Calling it “the single largest commissioning of new music by women composers ever,” the orchestra will pick 10 composers to write fanfares to the new millennium. The idea is to “capture the musical voices of …the best women composers working in America today, both those with national and international reputations as well as emerging artists.” Three of these works (by Jennifer Higdon, Cindy Cox and Mary Jeanne Van Appledorn) will be played in the 1999-2000 Season.

The Philharmonic has partnered with the American Composers Orchestra and the Lubbock Symphony for the project, and it is hoped that the fanfares will be presented in every major U.S. city beginning in the year 2000.

Fanfares also hopes to place some of the compositions into the repertory of orchestras that have poorer records programming works by women. “Music directors will be able to choose from ten works by quality composers, and the pieces will be short in duration — ten minutes or less — and thus easy to insert into a program. The millennial theme will create a sense of urgency around programming these pieces in a timely manner.” The only concern here is that most orchestras may already have a “millennium package” in store. But it is an ambitious and impressive project even if this last goal is not met.

From How American Are American Orchestras?
by Andrew J. Druckenbrod
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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